Perhaps the only three test series Sri Lanka I can recall Sri Lanka playing in recent times, and a model of scheduling for the future. The ratings and Sri Lanka's recent dominance at home indicate a victory for the home side, but it may not be so clear-cut. The absence of Muralitharan and Malinga, the recall of Pakistan's ICL players, notably Mohammed Yousuf, and any psychological boost to be had from their T20 World Cup victory may even things out.
Having said that, I still favour Sri Lanka for the win. If the recent maturity of Dilshan translates to the test arena they have, perhaps, he strongest middle order in the world (notwithstanding Jayawardene's poor recent form). Much will hinge on how Pakistan plays Mendis, now thrust almost into a senior role. If they can resist him, their bowling lineup may prove superior. A fascinating series in prospect between two sides that should be developing a serious rivalry.
If the West Indies couldn't get themselves up for a two-test series in England in May, what chance they show any interest in a two-test home series against Bangladesh? For that reason alone, Bangladesh might have a chance at winning their first test against a major side (albeit a weak one). But after years of predicting that maybe Bangladesh were becoming more competitive, I won't be making that claim here. What is possible however, is rain. Few series in the Caribbean could have started so late in the year, leaving both tests open to miserable draws. Few will notice.
The Ashes. A series so important to its respective participants that their perception of other series is shaped by its proximity. It almost invariably disappoints as a consequence, but when it succeeds, as it did in 2005, it casts a shadow over even the most intense and hard fought match-ups. This series cannot hope to match that of four years ago, not least because neither side is as strong, England toppled by injuries, declined markedly (and surprisingly) in the year after their unexpected triumph, while in the past three years, Australia have finally started rolling over their aging side. Unlike that battle of the heavy-weights, this is a series marked by uncertainty, whether it be the youthful debutantes, some still unaccomplished senior players, or the aging and injured.
A series between two flawed sides, perhaps, but it must almost certainly be close one as well. Not since 1986/87 have the ratings put an Ashes series this close before the start. It is possible that one side will dominate, new heroes emerging to mark the beginning of a golden age, and there are possible contenders on both sides. More likely though, the matches will be tense, the individual performances a mix of ragged and brilliant, and the winner that who will hold their nerve.
Neither lineup seems to have the ability to either consistently take wickets or consistently score runs, leaving open the possibility of wild fluctuations in fortune. Australia's bowling looks slightly better, but one dimensional. Johnson emerged as a game-breaker over the southern summer, capable of devastating spells that turn games. However, he was also remarkably inconsistent, having failed to back up his first innings performance against South Africa in Perth during the remainder of a lost series. Rather than Johnson therefore, the key to the series for Australia may be Peter Siddle, whose combination of long containing spells and timely wickets will kep Australia in the game. Cracks appear after those two: Clark is handy, but also at an age when even the best bowlers need to take wickets through wile, not raw pace; it is unclear whether an injury to Lee is a blessing or a curse, but it does leave the squad short of spare wicket-takers. Selecting either Hauritz or McDonald as the fourth bowler would not be a bad idea, but would tire the key bowlers in a series that is both long and compressed.
England's youthful bowling attack is, by contrast, much more balanced, with spin options in Swann and Panesar, an all-rounder who can take important wickets in Flintoff, and a mix of seam and swing in Broad, Anderson and Onions. Like Australia, they are inexperienced but the key men in Anderson and Broad have recently shown the maturity and skill required of them at the highest level. There is little therefore, between the two bowling attacks. There is also little between the two batting lineups.
While Australia is generally regarded in higher esteem, England look more solid in many ways. Strauss's return to form makes him the best opener on either side. Cook meanwhile is the quiet achiever, highly consistent but needing to make more big scores if he is to change games. Bopara is an unknown quantity, thrust into the top order, but capable of dominating, while Pietersen and Collingwood provide a solid and fighting core. The lower order, from Prior to Broad promises many frustrating moments for the Australians - a particular blessing for those who enjoy watching the Australian captain fret.
My impression is that Australia's batting looks flaky. Hughes may be a superstar, but there is much emphasis on "may". Katich has been highly consistent in the past two years, but like Cook, fails to dominate, while Ponting and Hussey have both struggled badly, although Ponting has produced a handful of pugnacious scores when required. Clarke, the best batsman Australia has, is also flaky, having put away his flamboyance, but left the rashness. North and Haddin are capable of runs, but in the past year, it has been the batting of Johnson down who've provided too many of the runs.
It is a truism that bowlers win matches, but who they get to play matters at least as much. Nothing really separates these two sides. Well, perhaps one thing. Flintoff was instrumental in English victory in 2005, and equally so in their failures in 2006/07. He doesn't need to star for England to match Australia, but equally, they cannot afford to carry the Flintoff of recent past, with bat or ball. A close series in prospect, one Australia may just shade. Just.